NEW YORK — Cable news networks brought new toys and new people to the 2012 presidential campaign's opening night in Iowa, yet the tight race made it a struggle for viewers to make sense of it all.
Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC devoted all of their prime-time minutes Tuesday to the GOP caucuses, with two of those networks having new teams in charge of their political nights. Fox teamed Bret Baier and Megyn Kelly, after Brit Hume stepped down from his anchor role following the 2008 election. Rachel Maddow was the new quarterback at MSNBC. Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper headed CNN's coverage.
From the moments that the caucuses began, the networks reported on entrance poll results showing it would be a three-way struggle for supremacy between Mitt Romney, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum. Real-time results proved those polls correct, and there was a wide variety of opinion expressed on what it all meant.
To Karl Rove and Joe Trippi on Fox, it was a win for Mitt Romney because two candidates, not just one, emerged as his chief rival. The network's Chris Wallace wondered how it could be considered good news for a man considered by many a presumptive nominee failing to get a quarter of the votes cast.
Bill Kristol on Fox found Santorum's showing extraordinary considering how low he once stood in the polls. Kirsten Powers dismissed it.
"It could have been anybody," she said. "He was the person who surged last. I'll be interested in seeing how strong a candidate he really is."
Many of the pundits widely dismissed Paul's showing, a stance that baffled Maddow.
"Ron Paul voters are human beings," she said. "Why doesn't anybody ever compete for them?"
Maddow played the starring role at MSNBC, joined by panelists Lawrence O'Donnell, Ed Shultz, Al Sharpton and Steve Schmidt. Four years ago, Keith Olbermann was the big player at MSNBC, but he left the network abruptly in 2009 to take a starring role in the little-watched Current network.
Despite Current's pledge to build a news team around Olbermann, he was not a part of Tuesday's coverage there. One of the network's founders, former Vice President Al Gore, was on the air.
MSNBC's coverage was more commentary-based than its rivals'. Shultz, for example, took pleasure from Newt Gingrich's campaign being derailed by rules that loosened campaign spending standards. The network showed tape of Gingrich, who has complained that Romney has hidden behind independent groups bashing the former speaker's record.
"This is the guy who vilified Democrats and here he is crying about it," Shultz said.
Fox, the top-rated network and a clear favorite among Republicans, used that status in its coverage. Mike Huckabee, the 2008 Iowa caucus winner, was a Fox commentator Tuesday. Ed Rollins, who worked in Michele Bachmann's campaign, was also on staff. So was Rove, former top political aide to President George W. Bush and still an active kingmaker for GOP candidates.
One county chairman made it a point to deliver his caucus results to Fox viewers before he even gave them to the people who voted.
CNN offered waves of reporters and technology, including a bigger "magic wall" that John King stood in front of and manipulated data like a giant iPad. Another video wall showed four caucus sites simultaneously.
Ali Velshi showed a count of how often candidates' names were mentioned in tweets, which he called "a snapshot of public opinion in real time." Given that Paul's name was mentioned more than twice as many times as any other candidate's, it was questionable what that data really meant.
At one point, CNN's Blitzer and Cooper stood in front of a table where colorful stick figures representing caucus-goers holding placards with candidates' pictures was beamed onto the screen. Cooper looked bemused.
"If you miss any of this you can see this later on 'The Daily Show' with Jon Stewart," he said.
Ultimately, the most telling statistic of the night flashed briefly on King's magic wall. It was 13 percent, the tally John McCain had during the 2008 Iowa caucus, tying him for fourth with Fred Thompson. The two men tied for fourth place. McCain was the eventual party nominee against Barack Obama.
The number left viewers instantly wondering: What will all the attention spent on Iowa by the networks Tuesday really mean in the long run?
Associated Press Television Writer Lynn Elber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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